Billy saw service with the infantry in Europe, and was taken prisoner by the Germans.
After his honorable discharge from the Army in 1945, Billy again enrolled in the Ilium
School of Optometry. During his senior year there, he became engaged to the daughter
of the founder and owner of the school, and then suffered a mild nervous collapse.
He was treated in a veterans' hospital near Lake Placid, and was given shock
treatments and released. He married his fiancée, finished his education, and was set up in
business in Ilium by his father-in-law. Ilium is a particularly good city for optometrists
because the General Forge and Foundry Company is there. Every employee is required
to own a pair of safety glasses, and to wear them in areas where manufacturing is going
on. GF&F has sixty-eight thousand employees in Ilium. That calls for a lot of lenses and
a lot of frames.
Frames are where the money is.
Bill became rich. He had two children, Barbara and Robert. In time, his daughter
Barbara married another optometrist., and Billy set him up in business. Billy's son Robert
had a lot of trouble in high school, but then he joined the famous Green Berets. He
straightened out, became a fine young man, and he fought in Vietnam.
Early in 1968, a group of optometrists, with Billy among them, chartered an airplane to
fly them from Ilium to an international convention of optometrists in Montreal. The plane
crashed on top of Sugarbush Mountain, in Vermont. Everybody was killed but Billy. So
While Billy was recuperating in a hospital in Vermont, his wife died accidentally of
carbon-monoxide poisoning. So it goes.
When Billy finally got home to Ilium after the airplane crash, he was quiet for a while.
He had a terrible scar across the top of his skull. He didn't resume practice. He had a
housekeeper. His daughter came over almost every day.
And then, without any warning, Billy went to New York City, and got on an all-night
radio program devoted to talk. He told about having come unstuck in time. He said, too,
that he had been kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1967. The saucer was from the planet
Tralfamadore, he said. He was taken to Tralfamadore, where he was displayed naked in a
zoo, he said. He was mated there with a former Earthling movie star named Montana
Some night owls in Ilium heard Billy on the radio, and one of them called Billy's
daughter Barbara. Barbara was upset. She and her husband went down to New York and
brought Billy home. Billy insisted mildly that everything he had said on the radio was
true. He said he had been kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians on the night of his daughter's
wedding. He hadn't been missed, he said, because the Tralfamadorians had taken him
through a time warp, so that he could be on Tralfamadore for years, and still be away
from Earth for only a microsecond.
Another month went by without incident, and then Billy wrote a letter to the Ilium
News Leader, which the paper published. It described the creatures from Tralfamadore.
The letter said that they were two feet high, and green., and shaped like plumber's
friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely
flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green
eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They
pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to
teach Earthlings, especially about time. Billy promised to tell what some of those
wonderful things were in his next letter.
Billy was working on his second letter when the first letter was published. The second
letter started out like this:
'The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he
only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to
cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will
exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can
look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all
the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an
illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a
string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
'When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad
condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other
moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what
the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "so it goes."'
And so on.
Billy was working on this letter in the basement rumpus room of his empty house. It
was his housekeeper's day off. There was an old typewriter in the rumpus room. It was a
beast. It weighed as much as a storage battery. Billy couldn't carry it very far very easily,
which was why he was writing in the rumpus room instead of somewhere else.
The oil burner had quit. A mouse had eaten through the insulation of a wire leading to
the thermostat. The temperature in the house was down to fifty degrees, but Billy hadn't
noticed. He wasn't warmly dressed, either. He was barefoot, and still in his pajamas and a
bathrobe, though it was late afternoon. His bare feet were blue and ivory.
The cockles of Billy's heart, at any rate, were glowing coals. What made them so hot was
Billy's belief that he was going to comfort so many people with the truth about time. His
door chimes upstairs had been ringing and ringing. It was his daughter Barbara up there
wanting in. Now she let herself in with a key, crossed the floor over his head calling,
'Father? Daddy, where are you?' And so on.
Billy didn't answer her, so she was nearly hysterical, expecting to find his corpse. And
then she looked into the very last place there was to look-which was the rumpus room.
'Why didn't you answer me when I called?' Barbara wanted to know, standing there in
the door of the rumpus room. She had the afternoon paper with her, the one in which
Billy described his friends from Tralfamadore.
'I didn't hear you,' said Billy.
The orchestration of the moment was this: Barbara was only twenty-one years old, but
she thought her father was senile, even though he was only forty-six-senile because of
damage to his brain in the airplane crash. She also thought that she was head of the
family, since she had had to manage her mother's funeral, since she had to get a
housekeeper for Billy, and all that. Also, Barbara and her husband were having to look
after Billy's business interests, which were considerable, since Billy didn't seem to give a
damn for business any more. All this responsibility at such an early age made her a bitchy
flibbertigibbet. And Billy, meanwhile, was trying to hang onto his dignity, to persuade
Barbara and everybody else that he was far from senile, that, on the contrary, he was
devoting himself to a calling much higher than mere business.
He was doing nothing less now, he thought, then prescribing corrective lenses for
Earthling souls. So many of those souls were lost and wretched, Billy believed, because
they could not see as well as his little green friends on Tralfamadore.
'Don't lie to me, Father,' said Barbara. 'I know perfectly well you heard me when I
called.' This was a fairly pretty girl, except that she had legs like an Edwardian grand
piano. Now she raised hell with him about the letter in the paper. She said he was making
a laughing stock of himself and everybody associated with him.
'Father, Father, Father,' said Barbara, 'what are we going to do with you? Are you
going to force us to put you where your mother is?' Billy's mother was still alive. She was
in bed in an old people's home called Pine Knoll on the edge of Ilium.
'What is it about my letter that makes you so mad?' Billy wanted to know.
'It's all just crazy. None of it's true! '
'It's all true. ' Bill's anger was not going to rise with hers. He never got mad at
anything. He was wonderful that way.
'There is no such planet as Tralfamadore.'
'It can't be detected from Earth, if that's what you mean,' said Billy. 'Earth can't be
detected from Tralfamadore, as far as that goes. They're both very small. They're very far
'Where did you get a crazy name like "Tralfamadore?"'
'That's what the creatures who live there call it.
'Oh God,' said Barbara, and she turned her back on him. She celebrated frustration by
clapping her hands. 'May I ask you a simple question?'
'Why is it you never mentioned any of this before the airplane crash?'
'I didn't think the time was ripe.'
And so on. Billy says that he first came unstuck in time in 1944, long before his trip to
Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians didn't have anything to do with his coming unstuck
They were simply able to give him insights into what was really going on.
Billy first came unstuck while the Second World War was in progress. Billy was a
chaplain's assistant in the war. A chaplain's assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the
American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help
his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no
promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most
soldiers found putrid.
While on maneuvers in South Carolina, Billy played hymns he knew from childhood,
played them on a little black organ which was waterproof. It had thirty-nine keys and two
stops-vox humana and vox celeste. Billy also had charge of a portable altar, an olive-drab
attaché case with telescoping legs. It was lined with crimson plush, and nestled in that
passionate plush were an anodized aluminum cross and a Bible.
The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New
Jersey-and said so.
One time on maneuvers Billy was playing 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,' with music
by Johann Sebastian Bach and words by Martin Luther. It was Sunday morning. Billy and
his chaplain had gathered a congregatation of about fifty soldiers on a Carolina hillside.
An umpire appeared. There were umpires everywhere, men who said who was winning
or losing the theoretical battle, who was alive and who was dead.
The umpire had comical news. The congregation had been theoretically spotted from
the air by a theoretical enemy. They were all theoretically dead now. The theoretical
corpses laughed and ate a hearty noontime meal.
Remembering this incident years later, Billy was struck by what a Tralfamadorian
adventure with death that had been, to be dead and to eat at the same time.
Toward the end of maneuvers., Billy was given an emergency furlough home because
his father, a barber in Ilium, New York, was shot dead by a friend while they were out
hunting deer. So it goes.
When Billy got back from his furlough., there were orders for him to go overseas. He
was needed in the headquarters company of an infantry regiment fighting in
Luxembourg. The regimental chaplain's assistant had been killed in action. So it goes.
When Billy joined the regiment, it was in the process of being destroyed by the
Germans in the famous Battle of the Bulge. Billy never even got to meet the chaplain he
was supposed to assist, was never even issued a steel helmet and combat boots. This was
in December of 1944, during the last mighty German attack of the war.
Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three
other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts,
and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans
they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.
They went Indian file. First came the scouts, clever, graceful quiet. They had rifles.
Next came the antitank gunner, clumsy and dense, warning Germans away with a Colt
.45 automatic in one hand and a trench knife in the other.
Last came Billy Pilgrim, empty-handed, bleakly ready for death. Billy was
Preposterous-six feet and three inches tall, with a chest and shoulders like a box of
kitchen matches. He had no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon and no boots. On his feet
were cheap, low-cut civilian shoes which he had bought for his father's funeral. Billy had
lost a heel, which made him bob up-and-down, up-and-down. The involuntary dancing up
and down, up and down, made his hip joints sore.
Billy was wearing a thin field jacket, a shirt and trousers of scratchy wool, and long
underwear that was soaked with sweat. He was the only one of the four who had a beard.
It was a random, bristly beard, and some of the bristles were white, even though Billy
was only twenty-one years old. He was also going bald. Wind and cold and violent
exercise had turned his face crimson.
He didn't look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo.
And on the third day of wandering, somebody shot at the four from far away-shot four
times as they crossed a narrow brick road. One shot was for the scouts. The next one was
for the antitank gunner, whose name was Roland Weary.
The third bullet was for the filthy flamingo, who stopped dead center in the road when
the lethal bee buzzed past his ear. Billy stood there politely, giving the marksman another
chance. It was his addled understanding of the rules of warfare that the marksman should
be given a second chance. The next shot missed Billy's kneecaps by inches, going end-
on-end, from the sound of it.
Roland Weary and the scouts were safe in a ditch, and Weary growled at Billy, 'Get
out of the road, you dumb motherfucker.' The last word was still a novelty in the speech
of white people in 1944. It was fresh and astonishing to Billy, who had never fucked
anybody-and it did its job. It woke him up and got him off the road.
'Saved your life again, you dumb bastard,' Weary said to Billy in the ditch. He had
been saving Billy's life for days, cursing him, kicking him, slapping him, making him
move. It was absolutely necessary that cruelty be used, because Billy wouldn't do
anything to save himself. Billy wanted to quit. He was cold, hungry, embarrassed,
incompetent. He could scarcely distinguish between sleep and wakefulness now, on the
third day, found no important differences either, between walking and standing still.
He wished everybody would leave him alone. 'You guys go on without me,' he said
again and again.
Weary was as new to war as Billy. He was a replacement, too. As a part of a gun crew,
he had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made
a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped
up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the
ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.
What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around
sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but
Weary. So it goes.
Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood spent
mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unpopular in Pittsburgh. He had been
unpopular because he was stupid and fat and mean, and smelled like bacon no matter how
much he washed. He was always being ditched in Pittsburgh by people who did not want
him with them.
It made Weary sick to be ditched. When Weary was ditched, he would find somebody
who was even more unpopular than himself, and he would horse around with that person
for a while, pretending to be friendly. And then he would find some pretext for beating
the shit out of him.
It was a pattern. It was a crazy, sexy, murderous relationship Weary entered into with
people he eventually beat up. He told hem about his father's collection of guns and
swords and torture instruments and leg irons and so on. Weary's father, who was a
plumber, actually did collect such things, and his collection was insured for four thousand
dollars. He wasn't alone. He belonged to a big club composed of people who collected
things like that.
Weary's father once gave Weary's mother a Spanish thumbscrew in--working
condition--for a kitchen paperweight. Another time he gave her a table lamp whose base
was a model one foot high of the famous 'Iron Maiden of Nuremburg.' The real Iron
Maiden was a medieval torture instrument, a sort of boiler which was shaped like a
woman on the outside-and lined with spikes. The front of the woman was composed of
two hinged doors. The idea was to put a criminal inside and then close the doors slowly.
There were two special spikes where his eyes would be. There was a drain in the bottom
to let out all the blood.
So it goes.
Weary had told Billy Pilgrim about the Iron Maiden, about the drain in the bottom-and
what that was for. He had talked to Billy about dum-dums. He told him about his father's
Derringer pistol, which could be carried in a vest pocket, which was yet capable of
making a hole in a man 'which a bull bat could fly through without touching either wing.'
Weary scornfully bet Billy one time that he didn't even know what a blood gutter was.
Billy guessed that it was the drain in the bottom of the Iron Maiden, but that was wrong.
A blood gutter, Billy learned, was the shallow groove in the side of the blade of a sword
Weary told Billy about neat tortures he'd read about or seen in the movies or heard on
the radio-about other neat tortures he himself had invented. One of the inventions was
sticking a dentist's drill into a guy's ear. He asked Billy what he thought the worst form of
execution was. Billy had no opinion. The correct answer turned out to be this: 'You stake
a guy out on an anthill in the desert-see? He's face upward, and you put honey all over his
balls and pecker, and you cut off his eyelids so he has to stare at the sun till he dies.' So it
Now, lying in the ditch with Billy and the scouts after having been shot at, Weary
made Billy take a very close look at his trench knife. It wasn't government issue. It was a
present from his father. It had a ten-inch blade that was triangular 'in 'cross section. Its
grip consisted of brass knuckles, was a chain of rings through which Weary slipped his
stubby fingers. The rings weren't simple. They bristled with spikes.
Weary laid the spikes along Billy's cheek, roweled the cheek with savagely
affectionate restraint. 'How'd you-like to be hit with this-hm? Hmmmmmmmmm?' he
wanted to know.
'I wouldn't,' said Billy.
'Know why the blade's triangular?'
'Makes a wound that won't close up.'
'Makes a three-sided hole in a guy. You stick an ordinary knife in a guy-makes a slit.
Right? A slit closes right up. Right?
'Shit. What do you know? What the hell they teach you in college?'
'I wasn't there very long.' said Billy, which was true. He had had only six months of
college and the college hadn't been a regular college, either. It had been the night school
of the Ilium School of Optometry.
"Joe College,' said Weary scathingly.
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